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Great Lakes Article:

Federal funds sought for work along lake's shore
By Sheryl DeVore
Pioneer Press
Published November 11th, 2004

John King remembers standing on a Wilmette beach a year ago talking about the possibility that Illinois, after years of ignoring its chance to get about $2 million annual federal funds to help protect its Lake Michigan shoreline, might finally get that money.

If the program gets approved, "Is the public going to be able to walk on my beach?" one resident wanted to know.

That kind of thinking, especially by a longtime wealthy Winnetka resident, W. Clement Stone, who died in 2002, is what kept Illinois from participating in the federal coastal management program, which began in 1972.

Because it didn't participate, Illinois lost out on nearly $60 million over those 32 years, said King, chief of the coastal programs division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from where the funds come.

But now the tides have turned.

Last week Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich put in motion what local politicians and grass-roots movements have been pushing for years. He sent a letter to the federal government requesting funds to repair, protect and provide greater public access to 63 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline from south of Chicago north through Evanston, Wilmette, Highland Park and Lake Forest all the way up to Zion. Illinois is the last of 35 eligible states and territories to apply for the funds made available through the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972.

"Every single community along the lakefront in Illinois will benefit from this program," said Cameron Davis, executive director of the Lake Michigan Federation, which has long pushed for the state to request these funds.

"This program will make a night and day difference on the Illinois lakefront. We have had a record number of beach closings, caused from sewage runoff, pollution and other sources," Davis said.

Glencoe, Lake Bluff, Lake Forest and Wilmette and other North Shore towns have had record numbers of beach closings because of pollution in the past few summers. This program could help reduce beach closings as well as erosion and also improve habitat for wildlife such as migratory birds and fish, Davis said.

For those worried about their private property, King said, "Public access is one of the goals of the coastal management program. Invading private property is not one of our goals."

Public hearings and meetings among community leaders, grass-roots movement leaders, the state and the federal government will help create a program within the next year or two, and then the program can begin, King said.

For Evanston, that could mean funding for a comprehensive lakefront plan, which the town desperately needs, Davis sad. And it could mean better access to the lake for the disabled as well as funding to keep beaches open during the week, he said.

For Highland Park, Glencoe and Lake Forest with bluffs along the lake, the program could help reduce erosion. For Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, critical habitat for the federally endangered piping plover could be saved.

State Sen. Susan Garrett, D-29th, of Lake Forest, and State Rep. Karen May, D-58th, of Highland Park expressed optimism this week that the federal funds will help local communities do what they know needs to be done to protect the lake.

Garrett, who has secured studies and funding to find out why high bacteria counts have closed many North Shore beaches the past few years, suggests some of the money be spent on studying ravines.

Recent studies have shown that bacteria levels have been high in Lake Michigan (enough to ban swimming in many North Shore towns) because of seagull and human feces as well as contaminated sand and sewage treatment discharge during storms and electrical outages. The situation is further complicated by wind speed and wind direction. But ravines could also be culprits as sewage, garbage and other pollution from the top of the ravines flows down bluffs and into Lake Michigan.

Garrett wants to assess ravines throughout the North Shore area including those in Lake Bluff, Lake Forest, Glencoe, Winnetka, Highland Park and Fort Sheridan to see how much they are contributing to pollution in the lake.

"The coastal program will allow us to access grants to help cover the cost and repair of the ravines," Garrett said.

Erosion is another big problem, one which homeowners from Highland Park, Wilmette and other towns have been experiencing.

"This program will mean our lakefront has a level of protection from erosion," said May, who worked with State Rep. Harry Osterman, D-14th, of Chicago and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to bring this program to Blagojevich's attention.

"It will protect the bluffs and beaches. The lakefront is a real jewel," said May.

May's constituents are enlightened about lakefront needs, she said. They have been studying ravine issues for a long time, but they just don't have the money to do all that's needed, she said.

Donnie Dann, a member of the Highland Park Lakefront Commission, agreed. He and his wife Jackie live on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan in Highland Park. They worry about rising water levels and high wave action damaging the bluff and their property, and have installed large boulders to reduce the erosion.

A couple from Wilmette worked to curb erosion on their lakefront property, Davis said. They planted dunes-type vegetation, which helped the erosion as well as offered some habitat for migratory birds.

Dann welcomes funding that will help his private landowners as well as public natural areas on the North Shore curb erosion and protect the lake. "We need to deal with water quality, sewage discharge overflow, high bacteria counts -- all that can be done now with these funds," he said.

Wisconsin, which has been involved in the program for 26 years, offers an example of how far Illinois can go with these funds as the years pass.

With this federal money, "We leverage other sources of funds to produce great projects," said Michael Friis, manager of Wisconsin's coastal management program.

Wisconsin leveraged $3 million in grants last year alone, he said. Projects have included restoring a stream along Lake Superior that was polluted by oil-contaminated sediment and producing an educational book, "Paddle to the Sea," which was distributed to every grade school in the state, he said. "It's to give children an awareness of coastal resources."

When asked his thoughts on Illinois being the last state to seek these funds, he said. "This adds a greater voice when all Great Lakes states are speaking together.

Davis said Illinois has finally joined the coalition because "private lakefront property owners now understand a clean lake helps their property values. "And," he added, "It's right thing to do."

"There's more civic involvement and a call for improving the lakefront than ever before," he added. Indeed, hundreds of Lake Michigan Federation volunteers in the Adopt-A-Beach program clean the lake shore in Chicago and the North Shore communities.

"Officials realize a vibrant shoreline is good for their communities," Davis said. "We have some real leaders who want to see this happen. We are starved for funding to do important projects to help the lake shoreline. We can no longer take a pass on the $60 million we could have had since the program began."

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